The church that was smeared with ashes just a few days ago now gathers for the first of six weeks within the forty-day season of Lent. But where are your ashes? Where are the ashes you and I put on last Wednesday? Where is that dust of the earth that was rubbed into our heads? Even in the face of pandemic, reservations for all our Ash Wednesday Services and Masses were full. Yet looking around I do not see one ashen cross still on anyone’s forehead. They were not intended only for a brief moment last Wednesday. If we have washed them off or rubbed them in, let it appear so, but the truth is that those ashes are even now on our faces, on our hands and feet, in us and on us. The promise and the ashes are each a part of us.
So we gather today journeying together, on a pilgrimage, with the sign of the ash our safe passage to join even if we never bore them physically. And so, we are a band of travelers, a pilgrim procession heading… where, exactly? If our destination is more ashes, like poor Job sitting on an ash pile, then I doubt if many would so readily accept the sign of the ash on our forehead. What is the goal of our Lenten journey?
Our journey is not about dust and ashes, no matter what the priest or deacon said as he marked you on Ash Wednesday. Our journey is not to return to the place where our creator formed us out of the dust. That place, the garden, is forbidden to us forever.
No, our pilgrimage this Lent is a return to our true birth, our birth by water and spirit, our birth in the waters of baptism. We are led by a light more luminous even than the star of the Magi. The star that compels us forward is the light of the Easter Candle, the light which shines in the darkness of the tomb, and the darkness has not overcome it. We travel through a season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by purification of the spirit.
As did those led by Moses, we begin our exodus not with sad faces and frightened hearts but resolute and with faith in our glorious leader. As pilgrims we embrace the disciplines of thirst and hunger, of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are pursued and harassed by powerful forces determined to bring us back to a land of slavery. Pharaoh’s chariots and charioteers were vanquished by water; our foe as well by the living waters of baptism.
These 40 days of Lenten discipline, 40 days in place of 40 years, are a period of testing, training, and yearning for the promised land of Easter. We will not gain that land simply by staying alive for 40 days. We enter the promised land of Easter again and again by the act of keeping Lent again and again, marked with the ashes. Always, even when darkness oppresses, we follow our own pillar of fire, a new fire enkindled to summons us to turn, turn away, turn back the darkness with a light that is not of our own making. Turn, turn away and repent. Repent of bitterness, of disappointment, of fear of failure. Repent of lives lived constrained and afraid, behind walls. Repent of the sins of your former way of life. Ask the master of the pilgrimage what is keeping you back and repent of that most of all.
Following Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, (Hebrews 12) we now are driven by the Spirit, sent, not led as ones without understanding. Sent into the desert to be among the wild animals and be comforted by the holy angels. We will be sustained by the manna of his own body and drink of the fountain springing from his wounded side.
The pilgrimage that started on Ash Wednesday does not end in dust. No, at the end of our 40 days lies the River Jordan. Then, beginning on Holy Thursday, in sight of the kingdom, we will sanctify ourselves and prepare to cross over, not dry-shod as did the Israelites of old, but by plunging joyfully into the water and emerging new once more into the land promised us.
We follow not the Ark of the Covenant as the throne of the Law but rather he who gave the Law and who now comes to fulfill it. On Easter, sprinkled by the clean waters of baptism, we will once again renounce Satan and all his works. The whole Church shares in the fruits of the promised land and rejoices in the forgiveness of sins- not only of those who are reborn in holy baptism that night but also of those who are already numbered among God’s adopted children. The age-old night of sin will give way to the true light. God hears the cry of his people.
So now, dear friends, the spirit drives us to begin our Lent. We undertake this journey not of a superficial and transitory conversion, but rather a spiritual itinerary that renews the most intimate center of our person. The Israelites celebrate their Exodus and make it new by remembering it at the feast of Passover. This Lent remember your Exodus from sin and make it new by remembering your baptism. Prepare yourself for the new Passover, for Easter, when you will be sprinkled with clean water and your ashes at last redeemed.
Remember your sins and remember that they have no more power over you. Remember darkness and remember how it is defeated by the light of the Easter candle. Remember your ashes, and in doing so remember death and that death has lost its sting. Remember Easter and prepare yourself to travel through the waters of the Jordan once again.